Saturday, February 28, 2009

Helen Grayco

The March 2008 issue of Japan's Jazz Critique magazine contains my profile of Helen Grayco, which has been lovingly translated into Japanese by my good friend Keizo Takada. The interview with Grayco was conducted late last Winter on the eve of the Japanese reissue of the singer's album The Lady in Red.

Playing it Straight
by Bill Reed

In the 1930s, legendary Hollywood producer Irving Thalberg was insistent upon breaking up the antics of the Marx Brothers in their hit films with various straight musical interludes from the likes of Allan Jones, Kitty Carlisle and the temporarily calmed-down personae of Harpo Marx at his instrument of choice. Even the staunchest fans of the Marxes, Thalberg felt, needed an occasional break from the mayhem. A decade later, in the mid-1940s, legendary comedy bandleader Spike Jones might have taken a cue from Thalberg when he hired a beautiful, young, blonde singer to be a part of his group. At first glance she might have seemed out of place in the Jones organization which specialized in the likes of gunshots, whip cracks, fog horns and so on in their zany mega-hit recordings of such as “Cocktails for Two,” “Chloe,” and “Der Fuehrer’s Face.” Underscoring this point, Grayco recalled her first meeting with the bandleader to me in a late 2008 conversation with her in Los Angeles where she currently resides:
continued here_____________

Recent publicity photos of Helen Grayco

Friday, February 27, 2009

Leo the Great!

Today is the 105th birthday of the wonderful singer Leo Watson. My MY. . .he hasn't dated at all.

Monday, February 23, 2009

It's Kay Thompson Day. . .

. . .at Dennis Cooper's blog.

PS: I've just placed a couple of "spare" Bobbi Rogers releases for auction at ebay: Tommy Wolf Can. . . & Crystal & Velvet .

Sunday, February 22, 2009

James Reese Europe (re-run)

Today is the birthday of James Reese Europe (1880-1919). The following book review, which I wrote, was commissioned by the L.A. Times in 1995, but was never published. Probably space was tight that week; a new edition of The Olivia DeHavilland Macrame Cookbook had just been published and most likely took precedence.

I came across the manuscript of the review---along with a handful of old snow---in a desk drawer recently. Hmmmm, come to think of it, did I ever get that "kill" fee from The Times?

When ''A Life in Ragtime" was first published, it cost $30; shortly afterward it was selling on for $40. How can they afford to do that? The same answer as usual: volume Volume VOLUME!

A Life in Ragtime: A Biography of James Reese Europe by Reid Badger Oxford University Press, 328 pp.
by Bill Reed

On the evening of May 2, 1912, African-American composer-conductor James Reese Europe---the subject of Reid Badger's A Life in Ragtime---oversaw a "Concert of Negro Music," at Carnegie Hall, a hallowed venue that seldom if ever before had opened its doors to jazz. A presentation of the black musical fraternity, the Clef Club, Europe's transcultural experiment took place more than ten years before white band leader Paul Whiteman received a great deal more attention with almost the exact same kind of program at New York's Aeolian Hall in 1924 "'Rhapsody in Blue" etc.). At the time, faux "King of Jazz" Whiteman got all the credit for---in the sad parlance of the times--"making lady jazz respectable."

But Europe did eventually secure his quarter-hour in the spotlight; not, however, for his musical liberation of the Eurocentric concert hall (the 1912 Carnegie Clef Club occasion was the first of a number of like events held there under Europe's aegis). Nor was it because of his role as musical director for the sensational dance team of Vernon and Irene Castle who---in novelist Ishmael Reed's words---"inspired a generation of young women to cast aside their corsets and petticoats" (and bob their hair). Rather, it was as a World War One hero that Europe finally caught the fancy of the American public.

"We drank a bottle of wine and all the Frenchmen were happy as larks, just as though we were going to a picnic. . .When I came to myself: one of the officers touched me on the shoulder and said, 'All right, lieutenant, the time has come to go.'" The next thing Europe knew, he was "over the top" in an episode partaking equally of gallows humor and grand guignol ("For a while I thought I was having a terrible nightmare and kept trying to wake up").

Europe's participation in battle was in addition to his leadership of the famed all-black 369th Infantry Hellfighters Band---Which may have been the finest U.S. military musical outfit ever. And it is the stirring welcome home of the 369th marching uptown to Harlem, Europe in the lead of the band, with which Badger opens his "Life in Ragtnne" of this overlooked force in American music:

"On an unusually bright, faintly spring like morning in mid-February 1919 in New York City, a huge crowd of perhaps 1 million people gathered along Fifth Avenue all the way from Madison Square Park to 110th Street, and from there along Lenox Avenue north to 145th Street. . .On February 7,1919, antagonisms and prejudices were set aside, subsumed with a more generous spirit that seemed to promise a new era for America." Badger goes on to quote a "remarkable editorial in the Jewish Daily News': "These Negroes have helped win the war. Let us hope that their unflinching courage in the face of death will be remembered. "

Thanks in no small part to the efforts of the KKK spurred by D.W. Griffith's The Birth of A Nation---among other virulent anti-black social forces existing at the time---such a rosy conclusion to America's conflict on its own shores was not to be. And only a few days later after the Victory Parade, Europe was dead; killed in Boston by a crazed band member during the fifth concert of a planned 10-week, 18-city triumphant barnstorming of the U.S. by the Hellfighters band. Europe was only 39.

Fortunately, the Hellfighters Band, under Europe's direction, recorded several sides shortly after their return to America, but what the extraordinary 1912 Clef Club concert must have sounded like, with its exotic combination of instruments - 50 mandolins, 20 violins, 30 harp-guitars (bandolines), 10 cellos, 1 saxophone, 10 banjos, 2 organs, 10 pianos, 5 flutes, 5 bass-viols, 5 clarinets and 3 timpani and drums - is almost impossible to imagine. On July 14, 1989, however, a scaled-down recreation of the event, consisting of somewhat fewer than a hundred - black and white- players (4 pianos etc.), was held again at Carnegie. It was a huge success; an evening with the ring of the historic that also called attention to the glory of the original occasion.

Badger's essentially first-rate attempt to set the record straight regarding major musical force Europe misses certain things. There is, for example, no strong sense of how Europe's trailblazing efforts in large ensemble jazz might have influenced the just-around-the-corner likes of Henderson, Ellington and Gershwin: It is claimed by at least one Gershwin scholar that a young, white and underage George would sometimes make the long journey from New York's Lower East Side all the way north of Harlem to stand outside the Manhattan Casino and listen to Europe's early Clef Club concerts; but Badger does not deal with this. Too, he seems to have relegated some of the most fascinating morsels for his killer footnotes---nearly as long as his main text; including the fact that (cultural conspiracy theorists take note), in order to satisfy southern exhibitors of the of the 1939 musical The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, neither Europe or any other Aftican-American is depicted. The Castle's band leader is white and even a real-life black valet is played by a white actor. Curiously, Badger makes no mention of Stormy Weather, 20th-Century-Fox's black-cast corrective of a few years later in which Europe's musical exploits with the 369th are duly dramatized. But this is just so much postmodernist carping; what finally matters --- the important historical facts, lined up nicely in a row --- is that here is a meticulously-researched, enlightening biography of one who paved the way musically for the Jazz Age. . . and still found time to help rout the dreaded Hun.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Mystery singer?

Listen and hear a wonderful singer who never quite got the breaks she should have. In this instance, being the offspring of a famous female singer (and comedienne) and a well-known performer of a father was perhaps more a drawback than a blessing. But the genes sure are all there in abundance. I'll reveal the identity of this singer-songwriter-pianist in a day or two. Meanwhile, anyone care to hazard a guess?_______________________
update 3/1/09: The singer is Melodye Condos, the daughter of Martha Raye and dancer Nick Condos

Monday, February 16, 2009

In Memoriam - Susan Le Vitus (1942 - 2009)

photo: David Ehrenstein

The "business card" above was given to me by Susan when I first met her seven years ago. I had gone to see singer Pinky Winters perform here in L.A., and it turned out that Susan, who was also in attendance, was a long-time friend of Pinky's. I am saddened that Susan and I never got to also be exactly long-time chums. But the relatively few years of friendship we shared were definitely cherce. A majority of the "meetings" we had were telephonic, and I'm afraid it will be a long, long time before I stop thinking "Oh, that might be Susan!" whenever the phone rings.

Her excellent taste in music was manifest in her overwhelming love of Page Cavanaugh; so much so that she even co-produced his last CD, Return to Elegance. Susan also produced one other CD, by the fine singer-pianist Bob Millard, perhaps best remembered for the years he spent performing, and accompanying singers at Bill Rosen and Helen Grayco's memorable Beverly Hills boite, Gatsby's.

Very few of Susan's friends knew exactly how sick she was, for she erected elaborate subtrefuges to hide the sad truth that she was probably terminally ill. I certainly never knew. The last time I saw her was late last year when she moved heaven and earth to make sure that Page C. was included in "Great Day in L.A.," the group shot of jazz musicians taken at UCLA.

I could never get enough of just the "sound" of Susan's voice. . .if you can imagine a kind of a cross between Jean Arthur and Myrna Loy! Then you add to that the sheer wonderfulness of all of Susan's stories, observations, and that wonderful laugh of hers, and is it any wonder that I don't think I ever had a telephone conversation with her that clocked in at less than two hours?

Susan was a passionate lover of animals, which is another thing that bonded us. She would always sign off our phone marathons by saying, "Give Kuro a kiss for me." (Kuro being the beloved cat who rules the roost here at Oblivion Towers.) And I always did.

Susan was the last of the red hot practitioners of the "bread and butter letter." I still have dozens of them around here, stuffed in books and desk drawers, with every last one of them stickered with one or more cat "stamps."

Probably my favorite story of Susan's was one so rich and unforgettable, and yet---I've asked around---I'm perhaps the only one she ever shared it with. ("Did Susan ever tell you about the time that. . .?) I related it on this blog a while back. At the time, I didn't identify the dramatis personae by their real names. But now I guess it bears re-telling with Susan and Jim Le Vitus (he died in 2001 just a few days after his old high school friend passed on) attached to the story. To wit:
"When Susan began dating Jim some years ago, she had just met him and already was quite smitten. Then one night they went to dinner at the house of some friends of hers. Spying a grand piano in the living room, Jim asked:"Do you mind if I play?"" Thought Susan, "He plays piano, too?! " He then proceded to sit down and knock off a quite competent rendition of "The Man I Love.""More, more!," everyone said."No, I think that's it for now. Maybe later."But he performed no more that evening. Later that night he told Susan that was the ONLY song he could play, and had been coached how to do so by rote by (eventually highly-regarded) jazz pianist Lou Levy when they were both teenagers."It impresses girls no end," Lou told him. Otherwise, Jim could not even navigate "Chopsticks." Nevertheless, he and Susan had many happy years together."
An extraordinarily beautiful woman when I met her in 2002, it goes without saying that she was also quite something to behold in her twenties as well (the above photo was taken last year at the 85th birthday bash she threw for Page Cavanaugh). Only after her recent death did I learn that she was not only Miss Hawaii of 1963, but as such was also a runner up in the Miss World Pageant that same year. Is it possible that she never vouchsafed that autobiographical bit to me because she felt I might find it insufficiently interesting, or maybe she was just saving it for a phone visitation somewhere down the line? Alas. . ..

Thursday, February 12, 2009


That fine jazz pianist, John Wood, also happens to be a first-rate stickeriste. These sell for two bucks a pop. If interested in any, contact me at and I'll put you in touch with John. The MUSIC AWARDS STICKER was John's first, dating back 22 years. And let's not forget his famous "Drum Machines Have No Soul."

Sunday, February 08, 2009

"Blossom Dearie Day" Postscript

The following review by me appeared in the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald-Examiner on July 14, 1980.

BLOSSOM DEARIE dislikes being labeled a jazz singer, but much as one would like to comply with the singer-pianist’s wishes, after the first go-round Saturday of her return two-day stint at McCabe’s in Santa Monica, the urge to classify Dearie as “jazz” persists. Active as a recording artist since the mid-’50s (lately on her own label, Daffodil Records, which she personally sells during intermissions) Dearie has, over the years, appeared on at least two recordings of classic jazz status---King Pleasure’s “Moody’s Mood for Love” and the Blue Stars of France’s “Lullaby of Birdland.” And inasmuch as she, reportedly, is one of Miles Davis’ favorite singers, then whatever is that she does, Dearie is, as they say, “close enough for jazz.”

Dearie’s---absolutely real---name suggests her ethereal (yet tough) sound, for she places an almost abiding faith in the lately neglected technique of utilizing silences and aural space in both her vocal and pianistic approaches to a song. Dearie would much rather weave a spell, than grab an audience by the scruff of the neck and slam them into submission. Per usual, then, spell-weaving was the order of the evening with her solo set at McCabe’s before a capacity house, so rapt one could hear the proverbial pin drop even while she was performing.

Almost all of the 16 tunes in her set (8 of which she co-authored) reflect a kind of Broadway-sophisticated meets jazz-hip sensibility. “Pro Musica Antiqua” and “Peel Me a Grape” could sound arch or coy, but Dearie makes them sound friendly and innocent. She even brought off the rare coup of wringing the correct laugh out of “rest us”/asbestos rhyme in her opener, “I Won’t Dance.”

During the latter part of 1999, members of a Yahoo group devoted to jazz singers began a “thread” of stories concerning Dearie, including the lengthy one by Joel Siegel that I included in my last year's Blossom Dearie Day on Dennis Cooper's blog My participation in the thread was as follows:

One day Blossom Dearie came on business to the office of a former New York friend of mine. But all she could bring herself to talk about were the unsanitary conditions in his john: “The yoooo-rine [she pronounced it] stains” on the wall next to the toilet. Dearie then insisted that he send an aide to the deli downstairs to buy scouring powder and when it arrived, she set to work cleaning his toilet. She finished, then departed, and they never really did get around to discussing business. (And Marlene Dietrich thought that SHE was---as self-described---"The Queen of Ajax.") Eventually the insulted party with the dirty loo got even with Dearie by becoming her final (mis)manager.

In 1971 I went to see her perform at some little boite on NY’s Upper East Side. Her new album on Fontana, "That's Just the Way I Want it To Be," had just been released. A little on the pop-ish side, still I adored it. After the show, I said to her, "I love your new album." "Well, I hate it," she said peremptorily, and flounced off.

Cool, effortless and sans guile as a singer, Blossom Dearie was the MJQ of jazz songbirds and as tasty a pianist as that miniaturist instrumental group's John Lewis. She swung like mad, all with a vocal instrument that, in the words of the New Yorker's Whitney Balliett, "wouldn't reach the second story of a doll's house."

Blossom Dearie R.I.P.

She died on Saturday at age 82. Here's a link to the NY Times obit. Last May I presented "Blossom Dearie Day" on Dennis Cooper's web site. Here is the link if you are so inclined.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

My uncompleted liner notes for a failed CD reissue

I found these earlier today while rummaging around in a drawerful of old snow.
Even though you’ve probably---make that “definitely“--- never heard of June Rudell before, her singing voice is that of a thorough-going professional. She WAS a solid pro: a singer who plied her jazz-tinged vocals nearly every night of the week for a number of years but NOT always necessarily where one might expect to hear such sounds, i. e., not some smoky jazz joint, or similar locale. The following review of cowboy star Roy Rogers‘ traveling revue---from a local newspaper, the Evansville, Indiana Courier, from the great wilds of America in the mid-1950s---explains where, how and why.

“The Rudells begin their act when Roy [Rogers] introduces curvy little June to sing ‘My Baby Just Cares for Me.” She has a svelte show-type voice to match her figure and the song choice is a nice change of pace in the western flavor.

As she starts to sing ‘Tammy” she is interrupted by her frenetic husband Russ and brother-in-law Mel, who get her into the rough-and-tumble of the trampoline which looks so easy and is so intricate. All three are fine, but Russ, a former Olympic champ, has some heart-stopping tricks that you don’t believe even after you see them.”

To wit, June would be introduced as a straight singer with no mention of trampoline and then would eventually be interrupted and more-or-less dragged into the act as nothing more than part of an elaborate circus joke! And so. . . even though she was not perfecting her art in the places and manner where one usually expects to encounter such activities, during the decade-and-a-half she was part of the act, June probably enacted as much public singing as any other Ella, Doris or Peggy one might care to name.

June died in 1987, and Russ’ brother has also passed away, but husband Russ Rudell lives on to tell me the tale of this rather wonderful (and singular) singer and her career. I was able to find him thanks to the clues finally provided by the aforementioned article. Prior to that, I was unable to uncover any substantial information about June Rudell or her ultra obscure “Sings for Gourmets” lp on the internet via any research tools I utilized. But there are only two Russ Rudells listed in U.S. phone books. And “mine” turned out to be the first one I called. He was immediately helpful.

Thursday, February 05, 2009